Industry Focus: How Independent Bookstores are Thriving


How are some independent bookstores surviving and thriving? Katie interviews Mandy Vere

News from Nowhere radical bookshop has been a constant throughout my life. I have an early memory of gazing up at rows of towering shelves that seemed to stretch to the ceiling. Bursting with books of every genre and sub-category, from the tales of the Jewish Diaspora to lesbian erotica, it was an invaluable resource to teenagers like myself growing up in the 90's pre-internet Liverpool.

Some ten years ago, the writing seemed to be on the wall for independents. Competition was fierce from large chains like Waterstones and Borders, e-books sales were rising, the ending of the Net Book Agreement opened the door to price competition, and Amazon was tightening its grip on the market.

As the age of the Internet began to take hold, independent bookshops were in danger of being left behind. The high street suffered, consumers were tempted to shop online; why walk into town to buy a book or a t-shirt when you can do it from your armchair?

I watched News from Nowhere suffer, too. The economic recession in 2008 virtually emptied the shop of customers, save for a loyal core of supporters. The forecast was grim. Borders filed for bankruptcy in 2011, outsourcing its online bookselling to Amazon, but contrary to predictions, independent bookshops began to make a comeback. I sat down with Mandy Vere, co-manager of News from Nowhere, and asked how the shop managed to not only weather the storm of the past decade but also emerge more buoyant than ever.

"In the late 90's and early 00's, our big threat was the large booksellers and the supermarkets,” Mandy says. “The Net Book Agreement meant chains could undercut us and it gave rise to Amazon. When you have one dominant player, the dangers are huge–they can bully and crush the competition. Independent bookshops were the canary in the coalmine who suffered first.

“We warned others but the book trade was very slow to recognize the danger. When Boards and Ottakar’s closed, Waterstones became our only high street competitor. Publishers started to notice independent bookshops because they realized their potential outlets for advertisement were dwindling. Independents are a collective force in the book trade's interest."

I asked Mandy what she attributes the success of News from Nowhere to.

"We have the luxury of owning our building–high street rent for small businesses can be stratospheric. We're also the only major independent apart from second hand bookshops in Liverpool city centre–a huge area. Other large cities like Sheffield don't even have one. We've diversified our stock to sell t-shirts, CD's, souvenirs and stationary. You have to keep appealing to your customer base; we engage with the local community groups and organisations. We have a good relationship with John Moore's university and gain regular custom from their students."

After a difficult decade, why does she think independents are back in favour with the customers?

"E-books have plateaued and people are coming back to print. Libraries and small local businesses are closing weekly. People come in to show their support and express their amazement at how 'real' the bookshops is. Nothing can compare to browsing a bookshelf and picking the book you want.

“The internet has raised awareness of independent shops; our Twitter followers are in their thousands now and people from all over the world visit the shop because they've seen us featured on a blog somewhere."

Similarly to the US, a new young energized generation of shop owners has breathed life into a flagging industry by creating shop-communities for book-lovers. Traditional bookshops across the country have reinvented themselves.

For Phillipa James, owner of The Cook Book in St. Just, Cornwall, it was the café that has boosted book sales. "Customers grab one book to read with their slice of cake,” she said, “and end up going home with five more."

In Coventry, The Big Comfy Bookshops hosts regular social events and has an in-store folk music club whilst the award-winning Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath has a Bibliotherapy Room that features a fire, cosy armchairs and free tea and coffee.

Although the buy-local movement has given stores a financial injection and sales at independent bookstores rose about 8% in 2011 alone, back in Liverpool, Mandy remains cautiously optimistic: "It's all really positive and we're in a much better situation financially then we were 5 years ago, [but] you never know what's around the corner, so as owners of an independent bookshop, we're always on our toes."

Katie Smith graduated from the MA Professional Writing in 2016 and liked Falmouth so much she decided to stay and work for student services. The MA was invaluable in helping her find ‘writer’s voice’ and giving her the confidence to share her writing online. Katie tries to write as much as she can, in between exploring the Cornish coast path, trawling Cornwall for second hand bookshops, and working her way through the novels of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. If Cornish bookshops are of interest to you, you may like Katie’s blog The Cornish Bookshop